Ah! I’ve had so many things going on this week, a trend that will probably continue through the end of October what with a book festival, social gatherings, football, wedding, parents’ visit, conferences and Halloween costumes to finish on top of ongoing projects and general life stuff.
So this week I’m tackling another easy* one, shower (샤워, syawŏ in McCune-Reischauer, pronounced kind of like shyah-wuh). This is, of course, the Korean word for… shower, from the English word… shower.
As far as I know, this word doesn’t hide any secrets of Korean culture or pull back the curtains on any little-known aspects of Korean society. But there are a few differences in bathing in South Korea and North America.
In about half of the places I lived in Korea, and even a lot of the hotels I stayed in traveling around the country, bathrooms had no separate shower stall or tub with a curtain.
Instead, there was a shower head on a snaking tube, attached to the wall, if I was lucky, by a bracket. (In one apartment, I had to supply a suction-cupped shower head holder myself.) This is not really awful, but it does lead to tricky situations with keeping toilet paper and towels wet and with avoiding mold in general.
These places were all old, though. I haven’t been into that many newer Korean apartments, but I think a lot of them do have tubs now. The last place I lived had a small tub—but no shower curtain.
One reason the open-plan bathroom isn’t a big deal, as my husband and I were just discussing, is that even when there is a tub or shower, people in Korea often don’t use it the same way as many North Americans. Instead of standing under the water, people will hold the shower head in their hand and spray their body at close range as they wash.
Serious scrubbing tools are common, and some people do some pretty serious self-pedicures in the shower, but otherwise there’s not much surprising about Korean bathing habits: daily, using body wash (called body wash 바디워쉬), shampoo (called shampoo 샴푸) and conditioner (called, for some reason, rinse 린스). Oh, and people often use towels the size of what North Americans usually call hand towels.
And no, I’m not a creep or a peeping Tom to be knowing so much about Korean showering habits. Part of this I know from talking to Korean people (including the hubs), but a lot I know from my own experience in public baths or gym showers.
Public baths are called mogyokt’ang (목욕탕). Mogyokt’ang are basic public baths, the kind that have been around for ages, where everyone used to bathe back in the day, men and women separately. The smallest have at least a few pools, and in more residential neighborhoods of Seoul, you often see women carrying caddies full of shampoo and other bathing products back and forth between mogyokt’ang and home.
Jjimjilbang (찜질방), also called sauna (사우나) are bigger complexes with the pools as well as hot and cold rooms and various entertainment and food options, where families sometimes go to spend an entire day. Conan O’Brien, the awkward heart-throb of my 16-year-old self, famously and hilariously went to one in LA in 2015 with Korean-American actor Steven Yeun of Walking Dead fame:
Conan’s video covers most major points of jjimjilbang, but the last sauna I went to differed in one major way, at least on the women’s side. At Itaewon Land spa, the corners of each pool are decorated with penises, two feet or so tall and close to a foot in diameter, that occasionally burst forth with a stream of warm…water, just water! that arcs into the pools, sometimes splashing the women soaking within. When I asked my friend Arnold what they had on the men’s side, the answer disappointed: Frogs.
Like mogyokt’ang, gym showers in Korea don’t allow for much modesty. I’ve never seen a shower stall (but then, I’ve never been to a very nice gym). In the Itaewon-dong Citizens’ Center gym, for example, the shower looked pretty much like this, but older:
Now that I’m back in the States, I actually feel weird about the relative lack of nudity in American gym locker rooms (at least on the women’s side). It’s awkward to try to get dressed while also being “modest.” In fact there’s only one thing I don’t miss about the public bathing experience in Korea, and that’s watching ladies blow dry their pubes.
*by “easy,” I mean I don’t have to read a ton of Korean-language sources or struggle to find details on etymology.
A note on spelling and romanization: I prefer to use English spellings for English-derived words in this blog because it makes it easier for most people to read.